As far as numbers go, Jeff Stratford admits he’s had better years.
But just because there are fewer birds visiting Stratford’s feeders in Wilkes-Barre this winter, he isn’t ready to jump to any conclusions.
“It’s not that there’s fewer. It’s just that we’re not seeing them,” said Stratford, who is an assistant professor of biology at Wilkes University.
Specifically, Stratford said the missing bird species include those whose numbers typically fluctuate, like winter finches and pine siskins, and others that are usually a frequent sight, including downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees and white-throated sparrows.
And he isn’t alone.
Several avid bird watchers report seeing fewer birds at their feeders this winter. Sandy Goodwin of the Greater Wyoming Valley Audubon Society said she heard from several bird watchers who reported fewer sightings, especially earlier this winter when it was warmer. Numbers picked up a bit when temperatures dropped, she said, but there are still places where feeders are unusually quiet.
And it’s hard to pin the cause to just one factor.
According to Doug Gross, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, it’s possible the species that are absent in Pennsylvania could be more prevalent in other states. He also said the abundance of conifer cones in Eastern Canada and New England was good this year, and a lot of birds that would migrate south could be staying up north due to the plentiful food source.
Gross offered yet another reason that could be the most impactful.
“There is a decrease in bird numbers overall, and I don’t know why people are in denial of that,” he said. “The habitats in Canada have undergone a lot of pressure from development and climate change, and we’re seeing the results of that here.”
As an example, Gross said it was commonplace to see 15 to 20 tree sparrows at his winter feeders years ago. Today, he said, it’s rare to see one.
“Breeding bird survey routes are showing declines for several species, and it could be from changes on the breeding grounds, changes on the winter grounds and losses incurred during migration,” Gross said.
Still, there is plenty of time to see bird numbers at winter feeders return to normal.
Naturalist Rick Koval said the combination of an abundant conifer cone crop coupled with a mild start to the winter could have delayed the arrival for many species. Cold temperatures and snow could force birds to seek feeders as natural food sources become inaccessible.
“Species that forage on the forest floor, such as Carolina wrens, Eastern towhees and dark-eyed juncos, could be more inclined to find feeders now,” Koval said, who added he has received numerous calls from area birders wondering where the birds are this winter.
Koval said he has 50 to 150 birds visiting his feeders daily, but some species, such as black-capped chickadees, aren’t as common as in the past.
Stratford added that dark-eyed juncos have been showing up at his feeders, but the best way to determine any declines is through citizen-science projects such as the Christmas Bird Count.
“That’s how we can tell the difference between detection or an actual population decline,” Stratford said.
The Christmas Bird Count has been conducted across North America since the early 1900s. Count areas are broken into 15-mile circles, and volunteers count all birds in the circle for a 24-hour period. The Audubon Society collects the data each year, which can reveal trends in both sightings and population trends of specific species.
Koval was the CBC compiler for circles in Tunkhannock and Dallas, and the counts took place on Dec. 16 and 17 respectively. He said overall numbers and total species found were about average with previous years.
Among the current trends revealed by the CBC, Koval said counts in the 1950s never turned up a single Canada goose. Today that species ranks first or second in the count.
Conversely, counts from decades ago yielded more records of winter finches and winter grosbeaks than are reported today.
“Is that from the popularity of bird feeding in Canada that those species are just staying up there and not showing up here? There are so many variables impacting bird sightings,” Koval said.
Even if things seem slow at feeders right now, Koval stressed it’s important to keep them out as more birds could return to the area.
“There’s a lot of time left and right now we’re in the dog days of winter when fat reserves are limited. It’s a critical time for birds,” Koval said. “Cold and snow together could result in a dramatic increase in activity.”